When an Independent reporter heard about the blind and autistic pianist Derek Paravicini's planned concert tour in 2009, his attempts to investigate the background to this remarkable life story hit a brick wall. It turned out that decisions relating to the affairs and living arrangements of this world-famous performer were in the hands of the Court of Protection, which is where the lives of vulnerable adults, who do not have the "capacity" to make decisions about their own lives, are decided upon. This meant a blanket reporting restriction on anything relating to the case. The Independent's legal department was asked whether anything could be done.
Recent legislation did allow the media access to the family courts, (although no reporting was allowed without permission of the judge) but when The Independent applied to attend the Paravicini proceedings, it was soon clear that matters were very different in the Court of Protection, which had never previously allowed the media in to its private hearings.
The application turned into an expensive test case, jointly brought by a consortium of several media organisations. Mr Justice Hedley's decision to allow the media access to the proceedings was immediately appealed by the Official Solicitor, appointed to represent Paravicini's interests. The Court of Appeal's decision to uphold Mr J Hedley's groundbreaking opening of his court's doors to the media hinged largely on an emphasis on the importance of the open justice principle. The other significant legal development in their decision was that for the first time, the judges explicitly recognised that the right to freedom of expression in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights includes the freedom to receive – not only to impart – information and ideas.
The media might have been forgiven for believing that applications to attend private Court of Protection proceedings would now be relatively straightforward. This was not to prove the case.
The next application made by The Independent to attend another Court of Protection case was initially successful – but then,after two days in court, the judge promptly denied The Independent permission to report anything whatsoever about the proceedings. So the public never did get to read anything further about that case. When the media became aware of the Neary case, a joint consortium again funded the costly and time-consuming exercise of applying to attend court. This time, recognising that the family's situation was already in the public domain, the judge allowed not only "P" [Steven Neary], but also the local authority to be identified. And in yesterday's judgment, Mr J Peter Jackson has gone a step further still, by ruling that everything (except for a few specific details) that took place during five days of evidence was reportable. It has been a long journey from that radio clip in June 2009 to today – but the legal landscape around the reporting of proceedings in the Court of Protection is now very different.
Romana Canneti is a media lawyer working for 'The Independent'Reuse content